Ken Stabler was a very cool customer, as John Madden, his coach with the Oakland Raiders, remembered Friday.
“We were a good team because I was always so excitable on the sidelines and he was very calm,” said Madden, citing two specific examples.
The first was the Raiders’ first Super Bowl win, over the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 9, 1977. “The first couple of times we got close enough to score, we bogged down and had to settle for field goals,” said Madden, “and I was worried we weren’t going to get it done. But Kenny told me, ‘There’s plenty more where that came from.’”
Stabler was right. The Raiders won easily, 32-14.
The second was a playoff game in Baltimore that went into double overtime. “Kenny poked me and I thought he had a play in mind,” said Madden.
“Instead, he gestured to the stands and said, ‘They’re really getting their money’s worth.’”
And then, Stabler went back on the field and threw the famous “Ghost to the Post” touchdown to Dave Casper to win the game.
In a conference call a day after Stabler’s death at 69, from complications resulting from colon cancer, Madden remembers Stabler as different in other ways.
“He never wanted other players to see any problems he was having, so we’d close down practice and then, at 9 o’clock [trainer] George Anderson would come back and work on him.”
Madden is aware of Stabler’s reputation as a hard drinker who got little sleep. “That wasn’t the Stabler I knew,” he said, describing the Stabler he knew as a player who was always aware of everything happening with the team and very knowledgeable about the game.
Stabler was a very smart football player who knew his limitations. When he became the starter, he made his own changes. One of owner Al Davis’ favorite plays was a 20-yard out pattern toward the sidelines. Stabler cut the distance to 17 yards because he had a very accurate arm but not a strong one. When the speedy Cliff Branch ran down the field, Stabler told him he’d have to come back for his pass because “[He]can’t throw it that far.”
Stabler had great confidence in himself, even when the game wasn’t going his way. In a 1977 game against the Denver Broncos, he had thrown six interceptions but was still confident he could win the game so he kept throwing — and got his seventh interception.
Most of the time, though, he made the winning play. The most memorable pass may be the “Sea of Hands” pass in the 1974 playoff game against Miami when, falling down, he still managed to get the pass to Clarence Davis, in the middle of a group of Dolphin defenders.
The one Madden remembered most, though, was a 1978 game against the Chargers in San Diego, when the Raiders were trailing by six points, facing fourth down on the Chargers 10 with under a minute to play. “I had told Kenny not to go down with the ball. All of a sudden, I see the ball loose and going toward the end zone.”
Dave Casper fell on it for the winning touchdown.
That was Kenny Stabler. He always found a way to win.